Where can I go wilderness beach camping this summer that won't be crowded or overly regulated? I'd like to camp, hike, and have a campfire.
--Bella, Boulder, CO
Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if we all had a strip of wilderness coastline to ourselves? There’s not much of that left in the U.S. but the quintessential multi-day wilderness-coast backpacking trip is on Washington’s Olympic coast, the longest stretch of wilderness coastline in the Lower 48.
Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk
The 73 miles of pristine shoreline on the Pacific within Olympic National Park feature endless sand and cobblestone beaches backed by rainforest; cliffs plunging into the sea in spots; tide pools brimming with sea life; bald eagles, whales, sea otters, and other wildlife; amazing sunsets; and bizarre sea stacks, pinnacles of rock jutting from the ocean, often capped by a few trees.
Dayhikes and multi-day trips are both possible. The coast is accessed near its midpoint by the La Push Road, splitting it into two backpacking trips. The northern coast hike, from Ozette Lake south to Rialto Beach-- 20.3 or 23.7 miles depending on whether you make the optional walk to Cape Alava (check out our Cape Alva loop right here: http://bp2.trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip.aspx?tripId=55146)-- is easier than the southern stretch, and very popular, requiring a permit reservation to hike between May 1 and Sept. 30.
The southern section, 17.5 miles from the Third Beach Trailhead south to the Hoh River, is more rugged and challenging—you’ll clamber up and down rope ladders on eroded bluffs, ford streams, and have to carefully time the tides—but less crowded, so a permit reservation is not required. Campfires are allowed below the high-tide line, but gather only deadwood from the beach—there’s plenty of it—and don’t harvest wood from the forest.
Hoh River to Third Beach
WHAT TO KNOW AND WHEN TO GO:
You can hike the Olympic coast virtually any time of year—the ocean keeps temperatures within a moderate range, with generally no extreme cold or heat. But fall, winter, and spring are quite rainy, with fog common. While it can rain and get foggy in summer, late summer is the driest time of year. Don’t go when a storm is forecasted; the ocean is a malevolent beast and the wind can shred even a stout tent.
There are sections of the Olympic coast that can only be crossed at low tide, so carry an Olympic tide schedule, available at visitor centers and coastal ranger stations and at nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/tides-and-your-safety.htm. Some sea cliffs are impassable, so you’ll follow a trail—which can be extremely muddy—into the forest behind the cliff. Don’t try to scramble across the cliffs, they’re really slick and if you fall off, you might become seal food.
Bear canisters are required for food storage and loaned for free from the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center outside Port Angeles, where you can get any questions answered; (360) 565-3100, nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wic.htm.
Backpacking Washington, by Douglas Lorain, has good descriptions of both sections of the coast ($18, 800-443-7227, wildernesspress.com).
Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. It will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press (beacon.org). michaellanza.com/